John Smoltz is the Ringo Starr of the Atlanta Braves' Fab Four rotation. Likable? Sure. You have to like someone who once tried to iron his shirt while wearing it, who calls his mom and dad regularly, and who used to be an award-winning accordion player. Unlike bandmates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, all of whom have won 18 games at least twice, Smoltz, who has never won more than 15, has not evoked much appreciation for his genius or his craftsmanship, despite throwing the hardest of the four. It has been too easy to dismiss him as someone just banging on a drum.
Then he walked into the Braves' training camp this spring in West Palm Beach, Fla., grinning like a kid who couldn't keep a secret. "This is my year," he told teammates, his laugh not entirely obscuring his seriousness. "This time it's my turn for the Cy Young."
"He's always joking and goofing around," Glavine says, "but when he came out and said it, even if he was goofing, it was out of character."
Smoltz, 29, knew that his right elbow—on which he'd had surgery to remove bone spurs and chips in September 1994—felt better than it had in five years. He also didn't worry anymore that people expected him to be winning more games because he had the best stuff on the staff. Before this season he sometimes used to vent his feelings on the golf course by turning his clubs into spinning projectiles. Only on the golf course did he snap, like a few of his jettisoned putters.
"I let all the criticism and the expectations rule my life," he says. "I wasn't happy. There were times when the last place I wanted to be was at the ballpark."
With Smoltz pain- and worry-free, guess who's fronting the Fab Four this year? That's right, Ringo is on lead vocals. After losing his first outing of the season, on April 4, Smoltz had reeled off wins in 11 consecutive starts by week's end, becoming the first pitcher to accomplish that feat within a season since the Yankees' Ron Guidry did it in 1979. He is the only Braves pitcher to put together such a streak this century. (Warren Spahn won 10 straight starts in '61.) Smoltz reached double digits in wins on May 24, the fastest in the league in 92 years. (The New York Giants' Joe McGinnity beat him by three days in 1904.)
Smoltz's 11-1 start—Atlanta was exactly one third of the way through its season at week's end—betters the pace of Bob Welch, who won 27 games for the Oakland A's in 1990 to tie Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies (1972) for the most wins since Denny McLain won 31 games for the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
Smoltz also leads the major leagues in strikeouts (97) and opponents' batting average (.173) and is third in ERA (2.24). And he has yet to heave one of his irons.
"I'm finally at peace," he says. "Brett Butler [the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder] once told me, 'If you were in a room with 100 people and 98 said nothing but positive things about you, you'd worry about the other two.' He was right. I know I'm going to lose some games and have some rough spots. The difference now is, I won't be concerned about what people say.
"One question, though, really bothered me," he adds. "Somebody asked me recently what I did to turn the corner. Turn the corner? I mean, it made me so angry. It's not like I never accomplished anything before."